The Cat Is Out Of The Bag
I’m hesitant to write about ice fishing for catfish, as I consider it to be somewhat of a hidden gem; however, the reality is that the cat is out of the bag (pardon the pun) and folks have already started to realize how fun it can be to target these whiskered beasts through the ice. Specifically, I’m referring to channel catfish, and from here on out when I say “catfish,” I’m referring to channel cats. And not little dink channel catfish. Big channel catfish.
Just as a boxer or athlete studies and familiarizes himself with an opponent’s tendencies and weaknesses, it is paramount to get inside the mind of a catfish (by the way, they aren’t as dumb as they look), or any fish for that matter, and attempt to make predictions before setting out to fish. Where geographically can you can find them? What types of water and where in the water will they be? When will they be there? What will they eat?
And assuming you figure all that out… How can you trigger a bite and convert a bite to a catch?
Geographic Regions And Bodies Of Water To Target For Catfish Ice Fishing
Catfish can now be found all over North America. While there’s some great catfishing to be done in the southern half of the United States, we’re obviously talking about ice fishing here.
Do some research on catfishing in natural lakes and rivers in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, North Dakota, and Manitoba. These states are known and popular places to target ice cats. Primarily, cats are found in river systems but also populate a wide number of natural lakes and reservoirs. It’s a pretty simple recipe…Do the lakes/rivers freeze? Are they known to have decent channel catfishing during the Spring and Summer? If yes and yes, you’re on the right track.
Catfish Seasonal Migration Patterns
Open Water Insights
Here in Wisconsin, catfish are a popular target for fishermen in the spring and early summer. During these times, they are known to hang out in shallow flats on natural lakes where they spawn and feed, favoring the warmer water. We’re talking less than 10 feet, even as shallow as just a couple feet of water if that’s where the food and warmest water is. Spawning starts when water temps climb through the 60’s and hit 70-75 degrees Fahrenheit. Research has shown that optimal spawning occurs around 80 degrees Fahrenheit. The males set up the spawning nests and remain there until after the fry hatch. This period of time can end up being a couple weeks. In rivers, cats seem to favor deep pools and structure such as logs during the day, but move into shallower water and are active at night. While many believe that catfish gravitate towards dirty water, that’s not entirely true. If given suitable cover and structure, channel cats actually prefer more clear active (ie. gentle current) water. Things slow down through the dog days of summer as the cats are more scattered.
After The Water Freezes
One winter hits, you won’t find cats any longer in the shallow flats. Just as they sought out those shallow areas with the warmest water during Springtime, in the Winter they move out to deeper water in search of warmer temperatures. Typical Winter depths range of 20 to 30 feet in natural lakes, plus or minus. Look for areas in this depth range that have a sandy or soft bottom and that transition off of break lines. On rivers, cats similarly migrate to areas with structure and deeper slow moving water.
Importantly, though, they don’t necessarily stay put in one spot and can be expected to be on the move. They also tend to school up and travel around in numbers during the winter months as well. This clustering means fishing can be make or break in the winter.
As far as depth goes, don’t just assume that they’ll always be glued to the bottom in 30 feet of water. They are commonly seen cruising just off the bottom but also, at times will suspend 10 feet or more up in the water column, making a flasher instrumental when scouting the lake. Furthermore, the catfish found near the bottom are usually the ones that are less active and less interested in finding a meal, whereas the suspended cats are more likely to bite in our experience.
Catfish Feeding Habits and Behavior
You may find written in older publications that channel catfish do not feed during the winter months and are inactive. Myth. I can tell you that this has not been my experience, and others will also testify. The truth is that they become more selective and sometimes are less willing to go seek out a meal since their metabolism slows in the Winter. Colder weather means that fish will make more calculated decisions as to whether expending the energy is worth the reward. If you can figure out where they are and get a tasty treat in the zone, you’re in business.
Again, the thing to realize is that catfish are predators and prolific eaters when an opportunity presents itself. They aren’t merely scavengers or grazers like carp. They primarily use their sense of smell and touch when feeding. It is also believed that they have excellent eyesight. As evidenced by the wide range of catfish baits on the market, there is certainly a wide range of offerings a cat will potentially eat. However, they can be picky at times and bait selection can definitely make or break a fishing trip.
Bait Selection and Presentation
We primarily use cut bait during the winter, favoring the middle and head pieces of cut minnows or small squares of cut sucker.
Pro tip: Re-bait hooks with fresh cut bait every hour or so to maximize scent effect.
The local forage of your body of water should ultimately direct bait selection. Cut bluegill or perch from the same lake you are targeting can be other excellent choices and sometimes enticing enough to convert picky eaters.
Pro tip: If you find catfish and confirm catfish on your underwater camera but they don’t seem interested in eating, change one thing at a time.
If they aren’t biting, first you might try switching up to a different type of bait. Still no luck? Change the presentation. Sometimes like like it still, other times some jigging will do the trick. Still nothing? Change the depth that you’re fishing. Even though you’re only seeing them on the bottom, I can guarantee there are others 5 or 10 feet up who may be more active. If all else fails, get your auger back out, grab your flasher/camera and move. It’s a hassle, especially if you have a shelter and gear set up, but it’s part of the game. Also, seek out schools of panfish or bait fish in the general area. If you can find these fish, chances are good that channel cats will be nearby.
Ice Fishing Gear and Tackle Selection
Rods, Tip ups, and Automatic Fisherman
For channel cats through the ice, we use a combination of tip ups, automatic fisherman, and jigging with a medium to medium heavy rod. The automatic fishermen usually outperform anything else and the more of these you have the better. If you get the combo package, the included rod works just fine. However, if you just buy the automatic fisherman base unit, there are some rods that work better than others. To set the hook effectively, a longer more flexible rod of medium weight is preferable. I’ve used 32″ medium graphite-based rods with good results. Even better though, a medium rod with a fiberglass blank will give you even more flex and less chance of snapping your rod. Frabill makes a 38″ fiberglass ice rod that fits the bill.
Ice Fishing Line & Leaders
As far as line goes, when dealing with channel cats that are commonly in the 8 to 10 lb range and not uncommonly approach 15 to 20 lbs, I recommend 8 or 10lb ice braid on your rods used for jigging and Automatic Fisherman. I use Suffix 832 ice braid for my main line. As discussed earlier, catfish have keen senses and anything you can fo to make your bait presentation less suspicious is a good idea.
For that reason, I use a long 20lb fluorocarbon leader which is essentially invisible underwater. If you use 20 to 30 lb fluorocarbon for your leaders, you buy yourself some pike insurance in case Mr. Big is in the neighborhood or you want to use the same tackle to target pike instead. Again, I think quality is the way to go and use Seaguar fluorocarbon with a ball-bearing swivel and snap-lock to make my leaders.
Which Hooks To Use
Catfish are notoriously light biters and will cause you headaches as they often drop the bait after starting to run. There are some things you can do to increase your hook up rate, though. Many guys will use a #4 or #6 treble hook to present their cut bait on an Automatic Fisherman which works fairly well. I like to use a #6 or even #8 octopus hook sometimes on my tips ups, since they’re more likely to set the hook on their own. Again, treble hooks are fine. Various small spoons tipped with a piece of minnow can work well for jigging, but just a round 1/8th ounce jig head with cut bait is good too.
Pro tip: Use glow-in-the-dark and fluorescent colored hooks and jigs for catfish.
You really just need to get out there and experience it for yourself. There’s nothing like pulling a giant channel catfish through the ice. Which by the way, a 6 inch hole isn’t gonna cut it.